This was the speech by John Wilkes of the Scottish Refugee Council at the launch of Refugee Week 2011. We liked it so much we asked for permission to reproduce it here……
On behalf of everyone at Scottish Refugee Council I am delighted to welcome you all to the launch of Refugee Week Scotland 2011.
The Scottish Refugee Council runs Refugee Week Scotland in partnership with a range of organisations across Scotland. We rely on the goodwill, passion and enthusiasm of hundreds of organisations and individuals to put the programme together. It?s a credit to all of these people that Refugee Week Scotland continues to grow every year – with over 110 events this year. Thank you to all of you who are involved in all these events and who are here tonight.
This year Refugee Week Scotland has been themed around "Courage", with many events being inspired by acts of Courage, large and small, that we all make in our daily lives.
Refugee Week seeks to celebrate the courageous acts people have made fleeing persecution in their own country and seeking sanctuary and protection here in Scotland.
Scotland itself has shown courage, growing as a place of sanctuary and welcome, although we still have a lot of work to do, to be a country that is truly welcoming and understanding of refugees. As Alex Salmond noted in his speech to the Parliament on being elected as First Minister;
"the sound of 21st Century Scotland….includes new Scots who have escaped persecution or conflict in Africa or the middle east, and it means Scots whose forebears fled famine in Ireland and elsewhere: that is who belongs here"
This year has a particularly important significance in that we are also celebrating the 60th Anniversary of the UN Refugee Convention, which was created in 1951.
The Refugee Convention is the key international legal document defining who is a refugee, their rights and the legal obligations that states have to refugees. Whilst the world has changed in many ways in the last 60 years it is sobering that the devastation and scourge of war and the ongoing persecution of people continues. The Refugee Convention remains as crucial now as it was 60 years ago to provide protection to those fleeing persecution. As a safe and relatively prosperous country it is vital that we continue to play our role in providing a place of safety and welcome.
In 1951 the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – UNHCR – reported that its caseload was 2.1 million Europeans, uprooted by World War Two.
Here we are sixty years later and the 2010 Global Trends report from UNHCR launched today shows that 43.7 million people are now displaced worldwide – roughly equalling the entire populations of Colombia or South Korea. Within this figure are 15.4 million refugees, 27.5 million people displaced internally within their borders by conflict, and nearly 850,000 people who have claimed asylum but have not yet been recognised needing protection. Nearly one fifth of these are in South Africa alone.
There is a deep imbalance in international support for the world’s forcibly displaced.
Four-fifths of the world’s refugees are being hosted by developing and poor countries. It is these nations like Pakistan, Iran, and Syria who have the largest refugee populations in the world at 1.9 million, 1.1 million, and 1 million respectively.
By comparison here in Europe rich and developed nations are bearing a fraction of those numbers. Germany has a refugee population of around half a million and here in the UK we have an estimated refugee population of a quarter of a million.
This comes at a time of rising anti-refugee sentiment in many industrialised first world nations. Fears about ‘floods’ of refugees in industrialised countries are being vastly distorted or mixed up with other issues of migration and immigration. Meanwhile it’s poorer countries that are left having to pick up the burden. That is one reason why Refugee Week is an important opportunity to challenge these myths and fears and to celebrate and acknowledge the importance of protection.
Even in the last few months we only need to look at our TV screens at the news emerging from Libya, Egypt and Cote d?Ivoire to see what leads refugees to flee. In the last fortnight alone the Syrian government's offensive in northern Syria has created a humanitarian crisis – causing over 10,000 Syrians to seek refuge in Turkey.
Scottish Refugee Council has also had to show courage in light of the challenges we have faced over the last few months. Many of you will be aware of the funding cuts we have had to deal with and the significant restructuring of our services and organisation so that we can continue to support refugees and people in the asylum system in Scotland.
Regrettably this has meant the loss of staff and valued colleagues. I know some are here tonight and would like to take this opportunity to thank them for their dedication and support during their time with us.
Notwithstanding these challenges we have emerged confident and robust in our future and in our ability to carry out our strategic priorities.
I would like to thank all our members, partners, supporters and friends who have lobbied and advocated alongside us on the vital need to maintain support and help for the very vulnerable people in the extremely complex and often confusing asylum process. We are also very concerned at the reducing support from the UK Government for refugee integration adding to the challenges and burdens refugees face in building new lives here. We recognise of course that we are in difficult economic times but we must continue to ensure that the most vulnerable remain supported.
We must not forget that refugees contribute to our society and culture here in Scotland and the UK. It was a refugee that helped co-found Marks and Spencer. It was 17th Century Jewish refugees who brought fish and chips from Portugal to the UK. It was a refugee, Sir Alec Issigonis, who invented the Mini.
It is also the many refugees who have settled in Scotland who have each contributed in different and positive ways to help make Scotland the rich and diverse place it is becoming.
Scottish Refugee Council will continue to lobby and campaign on these issues. More than ever before we need to work together with our partners. More than ever before we need your support. You can do this in many ways.
As an individual you can become an online supporter, a donor or a volunteer. As an organisation you can join us as a member of our organisation. If you are keen to become more involved in our work then please speak to any member of our staff here tonight who will be delighted to provide you with more information.
Refugee Week Scotland would not be possible without the financial support of different organisations. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the funders of Refugee Week Scotland and in particular;
The Scottish Government,
Celtic Charity Fund,
The Endrick Trust and
The Hugh Fraser Foundation.
Thank again all the contributors to Refugee Week Scotland (many of whom are in the audience tonight).
We are always thrilled to co-ordinate Scottish Refugee Week. While this is the result of the hard work of many I would like to acknowledge, pay tribute and thank in particular Belinda (our hostess for the evening and the engine behind Refugee Week), Clare and Karin and the team of volunteers at Scottish Refugee Council for all their hard work, dedication and commitment to pulling the week together.
It is a fantastic programme. I hope you enjoy rest of the evening, and in particular the film „Courage; that we are launching tonight and which you will hear much more about later.
Enjoy the rest of Refugee Week 2011 and celebrate with us the richness that so many people have contributed to and continue to contribute here in Scotland.
It took courage for them to make the journeys they did to reach safety here. It took courage for them to build new lives here in Scotland and become our neighbours and friends. It took courage for Scotland to welcome new people into our communities . It is their courage that drives and inspires all of us at Scottish Refugee Council and gives us the courage to continue the work that we do.
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